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Behind the Scenes at Cirque

ARIA's Viva ELVIS cost more than $100 million to develop and stage. Here is a backstage glimpse at the enormity of the challenge of putting this show together.

Monday, August 23, 2010
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Most hoteliers love Las Vegas. Most of the fascination probably comes from the amazement of seeing 3,000- and 4,000-room properties operating flawlessly, while some is likely because of the outrageous over-the-top nature of everything that is included in these massive pillars to hospitality.

Exaggerated architecture, restaurants that serve a thousand or more covers every night, 100,000 square foot casinos and buildings that can take 30 minutes or more to walk through…it’s downright mind-boggling.

While bigger isn’t always better, an area that seems to always benefit from outsized budgets are the shows. And to many, shows created by Montreal-based Cirque Du Soleil are the best of the best. These shows are the culmination of artistic vision, athleticism, musicality and, of course, plenty of money.

The most recent addition to the Cirque du Soleil family of productions in Las Vegas opened last February, and so far is winning great reviews for its premise of loosely telling the story of the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley. Viva ELVIS, which is performed at ARIA Resort & Casino at CityCenter, cost in the neighborhood of $100 million (including a specially designed theater) and seems to be worth every penny.

But this piece isn’t about trumping up what we all know is a highly stylized and entertaining show; it’s about taking a peek behind the curtain to better understand all that goes into creating such a dazzling production.

Most interesting is the fluid nature of the show, which isn’t locked in. Artistic Director Gene Lubas said it’s more akin to a living organism, adapting and changing in time. “Over time the show really develops into something. The beauty of working with Cirque is that it isn’t like Broadway, where the show opens and is locked. We can keep judging by audience response what is working and what is not working,” says Lubas.

In fact, a lot of the show has already changed since it started in February. Producers made it more biographical and used more music to tell the story, but not necessarily in a chronological order. It also ends with Elvis’ triumphant comeback in Las Vegas and doesn’t address his final years. All the acts are driven by the song book, said Lubas, to keep the show moving so there is very little dialogue.

“We are heading in the right direction. The audience is now getting on their feet and having a great time. The beauty of this is that a lot of Elvis songs are less than four minutes so it’s bang bang. We were really able to take the highlights and positive aspects of his life and work in the Cirque magic and do an abstract biography. We tried to do it so it’s not a boring history lesson.”

Aside from incredible acrobatics and dance from the performers, the music is of course the main reason people come to the show. But most of the songs have been rearranged with a modern spin so a new generation could fall in love with him and his music, Lubas said. For example, a 1960s Bossa Nova-style song was turned into a hip hop mash-up, while another song was turned into a reggae song (King Creole). “Blue Suede Shoes” was transformed into a new hard rock song. Over 600 well-positioned speakers create some of the crispest sound we’ve ever heard, adding to the energy of the room as audience members actually feel every beat pulsating through them.

But the real magic is what’s happening backstage. Technical Director Dave Dovell has worked on two other resident shows and faced many construction challenges…like getting 14 separate lifts installed and having them work seamlessly twice every night. In all, there is $68 million of lifts and machinery.

Dovell has a crew of 132 technicians, including eight department heads and eight assistant heads. But even at such a grand scale, he said it’s almost the same experience as his early days.

“You get to where it is the same process as 20 years ago in regional theater, just on a larger scale. I feel lucky we attract very qualified people to run our departments,” says Dovell.

Dovell said it took three months just to load in all the equipment, but he still managed to get people two days off every week, even if they were working 12-hour days. Some of the hardest challenges he had were working with contractors and permitting as a small component of a near $10 billion project.

“Sometimes it feels like we are 30 seconds from affecting artistic quality of the performance, but at the last moment we are always able to solve problems. These kids on stage don’t realize what we do at this point. But we explain it to them and they feel good about our role in keeping them safe. However, they have no clue on how many shows per week that some problem is close to happening,” says Dovell. “The first year of a show is always challenging, but year two is the most relaxing. It’s year three you have to worry about. That’s when all the warranty items break,” jokes Dovell.

Interestingly, Priscilla Presley was not heavily involved in the production. While Lubas says she provided great resource material such as home movies – which have been incorporated into the production – she didn’t really offer up her thoughts until the show was about to open.

“She saw what we were doing and then offered suggestions, saying things like, ‘Don’t make it look like Grease cause Elvis wouldn’t want it that way’,” said Lubas.

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